Tips and Tools #19 Building an Organization: Counting the Doors and Organizing Math – Part III

Article from Columbus Free Press

By Wade Rathke

When you hit the doors, and despite the fact that I’m writing this during the coronavirus stay-in-place days, we will be hitting doors again in the by and by, then you have to count. In order to count, you will need a system to rate the responses that you are hearing on the doors once you put fist to wood.

The first thing to remember is that these are subjective determinations by the organizer or the organizing committee member who is hitting the doors. As I often say, “there’s no substitute for good judgment,” and this is a perfect example.

The scoring will absolutely not be based on whatever the person at the door promises. The scoring must be based on a real evaluation. People new to door-knocking or early in their organizing career tend to credit any “yes” that they hear on the doors as a concrete affirmation on attendance for meetings. Everyone learns the hard way when the twenty people they expected, turns out to be five instead. People are not necessarily fibbing about their interest, but they want to be positive and often they might have really meant to attend or follow through on some promise, but life intervened or their attempt at being pleasant to an effective team on the doors evaporated even before they saw them disappear down the block or the onto the next floor in the apartment building. You have to make judgements on the doors.

There are two common scoring systems that we have used and that are common for home visits. The simplest is a three-part rating of yes, no, and maybe. The other system more common in labor organizing or in organizing drives where the committee and the organizer believe they will have the capacity to do follow-up visits or additional touches with some doors is a five-part system. Ones are definite yeses. Twos are leaning yes. Threes are maybe. Fours are leaning no, and five are hard no. As time and talent are available, twos and perhaps even threes will get additional pushes along with the ones to attend and join the organization. Even if time runs out, in the organizing drive cleanup (we’ll cover that in the future), everyone from maybes to yesses will be contacted, based on the initial assessments, making them even more important.

The job isn’t done yet. What if no one was home? The data recorded on the doors and maintained needs to note NH or something similar for “not home” along with the time and day of the week, which might help the next person on that door to catch them at home if they were working a night shift or multiple jobs. In the good old days, okay, I’m talking forty and fifty years ago or more, we would use 3×5 index cards. I used to stock them for the organizers in different colors for different organizing drives in different neighborhoods. A 3×5 offers the opportunity to jot additional notes on the visit about issues, leadership potential, family situation, workplace, church and so forth. Now this information has migrated to various clipboards or software applications. [We’re trying Action Builder right now, which seems promising, and was specifically developed for organizing projects by senior labor organizers with input from community organizers.] However, you decide to keep the information and the rankings, the key thing is keeping it where you can access the information and utilize it, and those behind you can follow the breadcrumbs back to the door.

One last thing before we leave the counting room. Some people on both sides of the door worry about looking weird making notes on what people are saying. They worry it looks like they are spies or somehow evading someone’s privacy. Balderdash! You need to be transparent. There’s no need to sneak around about it or try to remember when you can back to your ride or down the street. Tell people up front that you’re making notes so that you will remember, can follow up, and, most importantly, because what they are saying is important and vital to the organizing drive. People who have their voice taken away from them and silenced, appreciate the fact that their organization takes them seriously. Don’t hide that fact – flaunt it!

Next: We’ll talk about the evidence of the persuasive impact of direct person-to-person visits.



Tips and Tools #18: Building an Organization: Counting the Doors and Organizing Math – Part II

Copy of Article from Columbus Free Press

By Wade Rathke

Recently, I was shadowing some of our organizing committee members when they hit the doors in the Mountjoy-Dorset neighborhood of Dublin as they ventured forward to build the first community organization in ACORN’s newest affiliate in Ireland. In the first ten doors we hit, two of them claimed that they had been door knocked the previous weekend. That was awkward. One was clearly engaged, but the other was as clearly, brushing us off as she ran out the door. All of this underlined the simple lesson that as hard as it is to organize a community, we need to do everything we can to make it easier on the people doing the work. Stressing the importance of clear lists and, as critically, counting all the doors that are knocked, not just the ones that were home, is a fundamental.

Why do we count every door and note on paper or iPad or phone or wherever every address? There are several reasons. First, you are trying to understand the rhythms of the neighborhood. When do people work? When are they home? What percentage of the neighborhood can only be reached during the day or night or weekends? The organizing committee will only have the information to make these assessments if they both count and record every door. Secondly, you or someone on your committee is going to want to comeback some day to hit all of the doors missed on the first round on outreach. Later, we’ll call this the “clean-up,” but, truthfully, organizing is an ongoing process of trying to engage people in the organization as they come and go, and as we seek and find them to join the organization.

There are benchmarks in organizing based at least in ACORN’s case on fifty years of experience, so counting is important for us in being able to evaluate the progress of the organizing drives against long tested measures of effectiveness. Yes, every community, city, and country are different in organizing, but conducting over one-thousand organizing drives over time teaches valuable lessons. In ACORN Canada at the year end meeting of the organizing staff, we knew they had hit over 100,000 doors during the year and had enrolled more than 10,000 in various pieces of their membership program, because they counted. That means something. If 10% are going to join, and at least 5% or one out of twenty visits are going to pay dues, then organizers and organizing committees know that the drive is either on target or has a problem, when they are keeping count of the progress closely.

In a meeting of organizers in the Netherlands recently, one union organizer was depressed that in trying to organize immigrants he felt the response was discouraging. I pressed him for the number of people he was talking to every time he was at the camp and how many he many he was recruiting on the drive. He wasn’t counting, which was a problem, but when pressed he thought he was making progress with someone every twenty or twenty-five conversations. Those numbers are not far off the average, but because he didn’t understand the value of organizing math, he thought he was failing, even though, compared to most measures, he was making progress, he just needed to talk to a lot more people.

In Canada ACORN in 2019, we also noticed that because they also counted the number of people who participated in actions and meetings, that number was not far off from one in ten of the total number people enrolled in one or another class of membership. Organizing isn’t a science, but more of an art, nonetheless, without the numbers it is difficult to evaluate the work and how well it is being done or to make goals for production and performance. We are now trying to double down on the numbers by looking at the last fifteen years of work in Canada to see if these ratios hold true or are just coincidental.

Building mass organizations at the minimum level in a community or the maximum level nationally and internationally is serious business, so we need to take it seriously. At the same time, these visits at the doors or in someone’s home are the veins of gold running through the hard rock of the work, so we have to mine them well, and carefully.

Next: We’ll talk about how to rate the visits, and then later the evidence of the persuasive impact of direct person-to-person visits.

Tips and Tools #17: Building an Organization: Counting the Doors and Organizing Math – Part I

Copy of Article from Columbus Free Press

Before the committee members, volunteers, and organizers begin to hit the doors, we should look at a little bit of what I call “organizing math.” Yes, I know saying the word, “math,” is a trigger alert for many would be activists and organizers, but we’re not talking about anything too complicated, but we are talking about the fact that counting is very important in evaluating and implementing an organizing drive.

As a reminder, the first thing to count, at least roughly, is the households in the community that the organizing committee is beginning to organize, or the number of workers in the company, or units in the apartment complex. For ACORN, ideally, we want to organize a community with somewhere between 1500 and 3000 households. For us the reason is straightforward. We want the area to be large enough to be sustainable through membership dues. Like it or not, many unions make a similar assessment in deciding whether to organize various units of workers. The American Federation of Teachers some years ago would only organize a school district if it had at least two or three hundred teachers, because that would be the smallest unit they though would be sustainable through their membership dues structure. Other unions often petitioned before the NLRB for units that were fifty workers on average, but they were often aggregating those units with others, and would still eschew units that were very small, unless extremely strategic for some reason. In tenant organizing, the same issue of size and scale is critical.

You also want there to be sufficient numbers that when they get together in meetings, they get the sense of power. A meeting for thirty or fifty on a monthly basis feels better to participants than eight to twelve does. People want to believe they are joining a group with the potential of power, not a small club they can be blown away by the slightest breeze. Organizations in rural communities are absolutely possible and desirable, but they are more difficult to sustain through a dues program unless the percentage of members compared to the total population being organized if extremely high. ACORN in its early days organized a small community where there was a company town for a paper company and was able to support the organization because more than 50% of the town of 500 families joined the organization. Still, that’s a hard row to hoe, so be careful. Count twice, before hitting the first door.

Once you know the numbers of your targeted constituency, that’s just the beginning of counting, but Part II of Tips & Tools #17, will address how you count, once you are on the doors. For now, let’s talk about what we call “density.” Often you will read about the percentage of workers that are members of labor unions in America. The figures are at record lows and in the private sector falling towards 5% of such workers actually being union members. Overall, including public sector workers, it’s a bit over 11% now. Organizational density is the percentage of workers that are members of unions compared to the total number of private sector or public sector or both forms of employment. In right-to-work states or workplaces, union organizers and representatives pay a lot of attention to whether or not their membership is 50% or over so that they will have the strength to bargain good collective agreements. Often this is the difference between collective bargaining and collective begging.

In community organizing density is also important. Within the first six months to a year of the organization’s founding, we set the benchmark for success of the organization at reaching a 10% membership figure. When we were discussing the optimal size for the organizing committee, 1% of the size of the organizing target was our goal.

Part of what makes organizing math and counting members so important, especially for a new and fledgling organization, is that so many groups are hardly more than one or two self-appointed people and “the rats in their pocket,” so to speak. One of ACORN’s organizers based in Delhi, India, when we discussed political parties that proliferate in the country, noted that there were “many parties of one.”

In building effective mass organizations, we want to be able to know our numbers to prove our strength. We don’t have to compare ourselves to others, but the targets of our actions will understand the fact that we have a base and know who they are down to the last detail, and that is a message – and a number — that they won’t forget.

Tips and Tools #15: Building an Organization: Running the First Organizing Committee Meeting

Copy of Article from Columbus Free Press

The rubber is about to hit the road! Barring catastrophe, and all of this is preparing you to prevent catastrophe, the starting gun is about to go off and in four to six weeks, depending on your calendar and the size of the drive, the first meeting of this new community organization will be launched. It’s now time for the first organizing committee meeting setting everything in motion.

Remember at this point, you have already gotten a prospective member of the committee to host the meeting at her house. You have also identified key people who are willing to be on the committee and come to this meeting. At least as an organizer, you think you have. A rule of thumb is that you need the committee to be about one percent of the total number of households in the designated community. In other words, you want fifteen for an area with 1500 families, twenty for 2000, and so on. To get that number at the first organizing committee meeting you are going to have to have one-and-one-half to two-times the commitments to attend as you want bottoms in the chairs at the meeting. (We’ll come back to this time after time: organizing math matters!)

At a well run first committee meeting the organizer will have done second visits with the key people who are going to run parts of the agenda. Failing to do this well would inadvertently transfer the weight of the meeting over to the organizer and away from these potential leaders, so it is best not to stumble into a mistake here as the organization begins to cement its reality into the bloodstream of the participants. The outline for the agenda of the meeting will have been discussed with the prospective attendees. The agenda will be either posted or passed out to everyone, or both.

Ideally, the host will welcome people to her home and to the meeting. Everyone will introduce themselves. In a community organization they will say where they live, and in a workplace organization, where they work, and in what kind of job. Many times at the very first organizing committee meeting in ACORN, the organizer would have arranged for a leader from another neighborhood to come to the first OC to do the “What is ACORN?” background presentation to give everyone a sense of the organization, its history, its reach, and aspirations. If this is the first organization to be built in this area, then in the best case a resident will explain why they believe an organization is needed and why, for example, ACORN was the best and natural choice as the vehicle to meet that demand. At this first meeting, the organizer needs to be prepared to back this up, as new members get their raps together.

The meeting would then move into the issues in the area (or the workplace) that are triggering the need for an organization and demand action. This is an open conversation with lots of participation when the meeting is going well. Vocal members of the committee might be prompted to describe the issue that is motivating or angering them to act. The conversation is seeded by prompting individuals to talk about issues that they have raised in more informal settings during the runup to the first OC, on the doors, or wherever they made first contact. The organizer can help here, if needed, by saying “Mr. Gomez and Ms. Johnson, both of you mentioned abandoned houses near your blocks. Is that an issue the group should consider?” And, away they go. This part of the meeting is the longest and might clock out at a half-hour.

The bridge to the next item is straightforward. “It is clear from the discussion that there are issues and lots of them, so this is how we might move forward to build an organization.” The organizer is at the meeting for a reason. She is the mechanic that is going to help tune up the engine they want to drive to victory on these issues and their aspirations for the community. If this is a community organizing drive, she is going reconfirm the turf boundaries and talk about the organizing math: how many doors, how many people will need to hit them, how many weeks to the first meeting, and so forth.

Once the basic methodology is established, it will be time to call the question. This is going to take some work. Are people ready to do this? Either by clear consensus or a show of hands, the folks at the meeting need to vote that they want to organize, and if it’s with ACORN, that vote would also be certifying that they want to be an affiliate of the larger organization.

Then I like to pass around a calendar with large blocks for several weeks with the days marked clearly for the evenings and the weekend afternoons. An organizer would have already made sure that two or three people were ready to sign up to do the home visits during the coming week, so they would be given the calendar first. Their names might already be filled in on some of the squares. The goal is to get everyone to volunteer for a time to be trained and commit to door knock during the week. With the calendar signup process, usually everyone will sign up for a time, even if they have no intention of hitting a single door.

A constant theme is now emerging that this is a membership organization and that members will do the work. The additional point that becomes clear in this part of the agenda is that several people have already joined and paid dues. They will explain how the dues works, that they have already joined, and systematically ask everyone on the committee to join.

The meeting should never last more than ninety-minutes. We’ll talk about all of this more, but the meeting should end in good spirits with a feeling of accomplishment and the excitement of people now fired up and committed to changing the world around them, one door at a time.

Tips and Tools #14: Building an Organization: Where Does the Organizing Committee Meet?

From Columbus Free Press

The devil is in the details. This is especially true in organizing!

One question that I’m asked over and over when discussing how to construct an organizing drive and building the organizing committee is surprising, but important. Where should the committee meet?  The answer is always: at one of the committee member’s house.

Certainly, when planning for the first big meeting or launch meeting for the organization, the local community center, if there is one, or a local religious institution, if it is not divisive, or union hall, if you are lucky enough to still have unions where you are organizing, or some public facility, are all in your sight line and on your list, but none of these work for the initial organizing committee meetings. Part of the process of embedding the organization in the members’ hands as well as embedding the members into the organization is creating the reality of our claim of local ownership and control. None of that is possible in any institutional setting, no matter how friendly or centrally located. The committee members are neighbors or co-workers, side by side, and nothing says, “community,” like meeting in another member’s home.

Is this an easy ask? No, it isn’t.

Everyone will demure when asked. They have children. The house isn’t big enough. The house isn’t clean enough. There are dogs or cats. There aren’t enough chairs. The organizer must press through these objections, either arguing that they don’t matter, because they really don’t, or solving the issue directly, like bringing in more chairs if necessary. The value in creating trust, understanding, and comradery between committee members, trumps all reservations. None of this is possible in a more public space that is outside of the control or comfort zone of committee members.

At the end of the discussion, the host is going to be proud that the organization began in their home. Other members of the committee are going to be asked and will agree to hold the meeting in their homes as well, but it has to start in someone’s home to establish that pattern.

Besides taking another step towards full ownership and control of the fledgling organization, being in someone’s home has other advantages in organization building as well. Everyone will be on their best behavior in a home setting. The potential for conflict will be measurably reduced on any topic that might rise from taking assignments in the organizing drive or arguing about the issues for the first campaign.

This is also true for workplace organizing. No matter how many times the local McDonalds or the backroom of a bar is suggested, having the meeting in one of the worker’s homes gives you much better prospects of success. Paranoia that is part and parcel of public spaces in worker organizing is reduced when the meeting is privately organized in one of the organizing committee member’s homes as well.

Certainly, it is not easy to make this happen, but it is worth it, if your objective is building a strong local organization. Try it. You’ll like the results!


Tips and Tools #13: Building an Organization? How to Identify and Recruit Organizing Committee Members

Printed in Columbia Free Press by Wade Rathke

If an organizing committee is at the heart of building a community organization, how do you find the people who will join that committee? This definitely is not simply “add water and stir!”

Assuming we have already identified and defined the community, for an organizing committee to be effective, it will have to be representative of that community. All of the community!

If the community is geographical, that means ideally that the organizing committee will include active members from all points of the compass. Furthermore, the committee will also have to reflect the diversity of the community, racially and ethnically for sure, but also in terms of gender and possibly religion.

I say, ideally, because that is the task. That is not to say that failing to check every box means the organization cannot be built or be successful, but it is a critical part of the task because the beginnings do prejudice the ends. A dominant group that is unrepresented on the organizing committee will quickly determine that the organization is “not for them,” no matter what the leaders or organizers might say to the contrary. Prospective members will be looking for people in the back rows and at the front table who walk their walk and talk their talk to decide if the organization is really “theirs.”

We all know this is the reality, no matter what our rap or ideology might be. If there is a significant percentage of the community that is African-American yet only a few African-Americans are on the organizing committee, that will be reflected in the membership. And, vice versa, if whites or Hispanics or others are significant but not represented.

Why? Because the organizing committee members are the visible workhorses of the organizing drive until the launching of the organization in a formal meeting, and they are the invisible force of the organizing effort until leaders are democratically elected. They are the people one sees on the doors, giving the rap, and issuing the invitations to the meeting. They are the ones at the meetings with other community institutions encouraging them to participate or gaining a promise that they will be neutral and “wait and see” at the worse.

So, how do you find them?

You talk to “gatekeepers” in community centers, churches, union halls, recreation centers, social clubs, and local gathering spots. These people are not your potential organizing committee members usually, because they already see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as the community if they are community leaders, and they are often living outside the community as well. Any name you hear more than twice, you want to track down in order to measure whether or not they would be willing to join the OC and put in the work. When you find them, you want them to lead you to others.

What if you end up unbalanced in this early effort? Let’s say you have some people who seem ready to go, but the likely committee is not going to be balanced in the way required to build a powerful organization. A section of the map is blank. A major group is unrepresented. Time to grab someone and hit the doors cold in those areas and among those groups to prospect for the additional committee members you need.  Do the work. Ask for help. You will find them if you are persistent. Incidentally, building and balancing the organizing committee in this way is as important in a workplace as it is in a community, if that’s you organizing task.

A frequent question is whether or not existing self- or externally-defined so-called community leaders are likely assets for an organizing committee in a newly forming community organization? Usually not. Often community leaders have the history and may be seen outside the community as having the base, but don’t have it anymore. Furthermore, they often look backward at what they know and where they’ve been, rather than forward at what they need to know now and where they need to go. Absolutely, some are great, but getting fresh legs and faces on the doors is a surer step forward.

Once again, the organizing committee, not the organizer, will be the face and voice of the emerging organization, so a new voice is heard more clearly if it can break through the sound and fury of the past. Whatever problems you are unable to solve in the constructing the organizing committee, you will have to solve during the organizing drive, so this stage is worth the time and effort to try to do it right.

Tips and Tools #9: Building an Organization? Try Repurposing People – Part II

From Columbus Free Press

Mass organizations need people who will fill the role of organizers.  Interns, students, and other volunteers are essential along with government paid or subsidized work available through some federal and state programs.  In the next order of difficulty though there are invaluable resources for some organizations if you are able to access or repurpose staff through national service programs.

In the United States this largely means divisions currently placed under the Corporation for National and Community Service like the AmeriCorps VISTA program.   I know what you’re thinking.  These are aimless young people looking for some experience somewhere or trying to pass their time as a placeholder while sorting out their futures after some college experience.  They aren’t “real police,” ready to the do the work of building an organization, but more likely people trying to do a little good without much sweat while they keep their eyes on their own future.  True enough, but there is another way of looking at these people and their potential to build your organization.

First, some organizations are able to apply for VISTA slots.  When successful, there are both opportunities to try to recruit people you would want on your staff to fill these slots by applying and having your recruits accepted.  If approved as a placement sponsor, your organization can also accept placements sent to you, and then deploy them as needed.  Recently, I spent time in the office of the well-regarded and established advocacy organization the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) and met a number of their AmeriCorps volunteers who were engaged in advocacy and organizing projects for lower income workers and the unemployed.  The volunteers were integrated into the service components of the organization extending the work of the organizing staff.

Secondly, you may find that there are idealistic individuals who have joined VISTA hoping to make a difference or to learn real organizing skills, but are disappointed to find that they are hopelessly lost in Band-Aid programs providing service without any prospects of social change.  Creative and determined outreach by your organization may be able to locate and identify these misplaced, but already paid individuals and succeed in repurposing some or all of their time to build your organization.  A little-known part of the history of both ACORN in the 1970s and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) before that involved such reallocation of VISTA workers and time.  In Arkansas in 1970 there were times when I was building ACORN that I was the only ill-paid staff member along with one other (Gary Delgado), while the additional half-dozen organizers were all VISTA volunteers hornswoggled away from their assigned programs to work with ACORN often with the compliant wink-and-nod of their supervisors.  During the first several years of the organization while our leaders were establishing the membership dues and other funding programs, we could not have survived without VISTAs!

None of these programs are cure-alls of course, but all can be part of the patchwork quilt of building a mass organization from something that is an idea in the community to a peoples’ organization with real power and force.  AmeriCorps volunteers are one and two-year wonders, so an organization cannot depend on them providing for your permanent organizing payroll.  The same can be said for Senior Corps as a way to get some of your 55 and older leaders into staff positions for critical positions and periods of time.  There are also restrictions that require an organization to be on their toes and keep their eyes peeled.  Such federally subsidized staff cannot be involved in politics obviously, but they also expose the organization to political attack as the winds of change rage.

In ACORN’s case we once lost 100 VISTA volunteers during the Carter Administration when several were accused of being involved in union activity for organizing domestic workers into an association in New Orleans demanding to be covered by the minimum wage.   The ACORN Housing Corporation also lost a bunch of AmeriCorps volunteers working in its housing counseling operations when then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich retaliated after an ACORN action in Washington disrupted his speech to the national association of county judges demanding that he not cut school lunch programs.  Gingrich in a rage struck back claiming that an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Washington DC AHC office had been present as a bystander at the action.  So ended the AHC AmeriCorps grant, but like so much in this work, it was all good while it lasted.  The action cost us one-million dollars, which is a reminder that accessing these kinds of programs cannot coopt the organization from its mission or separate its work from is memberships’ interests.

Don’t underestimate the degree of difficulty, but when the mission is to build a mass organization to create power to make change, miracles are never enough to get the job done and money, particularly to pay for organizers in the embryonic days of an organization, never grows on trees.  It takes aggressive pursuit and creativity, so where an organization can repurpose valuable staff who are already paid, there are huge benefits especially in the beginning.

In the next Tips and Tools, we will look in Part III at the next final prospect for accessing resources for staff through unemployment and direct benefit programs.

The Challenges of Organizing “Gig” Workers

When we think about organizing precarious “gig” workers, the task seems biblical.  The workers may be ready, or not, but the spirit and the flesh are weak. We all bemoan the rise of gig workers. Low pay, few hours, no benefits are some of them, worsened by the uncertainty of a position where you can only work to deliver something being demanded by consumers at a premium you are powerless to control. App companies misclassify workers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to pass on all of the maintenance and capital costs, aside from web work and marketing, to the workers, avoiding the personnel benefit and equipment costs that are routine and inescapable for regular employers. Worker conditions seem to cry out for a union, but unions have to be wary at answering the call no matter how loud.

A recent “strike” by Uber drivers in Los Angeles illustrates the problem. The company had triggered the strike by increasing its percentage of the fare, thereby decreasing drivers’ pay.  In response, the drivers turned off the Uber application on their phone.  Stated more plainly, they went on strike by simply didn’t respond to any calls or inducements to drive.

Did it work?  Who knows?  How would any of us, whether organizers, curious observers, or company officials, know how to measure the number of drivers protesting in this way versus those who just decided not to drive on any given day or got ticked off and responded to Lyft instead or whatever?  ACORN tried a similar approach in the early 1970s when we were fighting increases by the Arkla Gas Company in central Arkansas. Our “Turn Off Arkla Day!” action got a bit of press, as the Uber drivers did in Los Angeles. But in both cases, the company yawned since there was no way to measure whether the strike affected their cash flow at all.

Organizing gig workers can be challenging, but there’s some good work going on for bicycle deliver drivers in Europe, where companies like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and others have become ubiquitous. Last fall one of ACORN’s affiliates organized a meeting in Brussels that brought together union activists interested in organizing European bicycle delivery drivers with fledgling groups of drivers from a dozen countries from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and others. That meeting highlighted several active organizing projects:

  • Bike Workers Advocacy Project (BWAP), a new group seeking to organize cycling workers and, eventually, lead to some kind of unionization or union-style representation. Drivers at Postmates and Caviar in New York City and some bicycle shops seemed to be stirring the pot in 2018, but nothing seems to have emerged formally to date.
  • Bike delivery workers at Foodora and Dilveroo in Germany have raised issues about low wages and their independent contractor situation while advocating for a union.
  • In 2016, London gig workers for delivery services Deliveroo and Uber Eats organized protests and strikes for higher wages.  There was also an outcry in Philadelphia when a rider for Caviar was killed while working.
  • Legal action has managed to win back employment rights, such as a recent ruling in Spain that declared that a Deliveroo rider was in fact an employee and not an independent contractor, as the company claimed. Caviar is in mandatory arbitration in California on the same issue.  As importantly, riders in London struck for three days in 2018, and joined with striking McDonalds’s workers to demand higher wages, largely organized by a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

While these examples seem promising, unions clearly lack any real commitment to organize these workers, and the workers have limited leverage. David Chu, who directs the European Organizing Center, a joint project between European unions and the US-based Change to Win federation, told me recently that he hears a lot of talk about organizing gig workers but sees little action in that direction, but perhaps the spirit – and many workers – are willing to organize, but the flesh-and-bones unions are not?

Serious organizing efforts in the United States have been contradictory and embryonic.  Uber in New York City and San Francisco reacted to organizing efforts by attempting to coopt the organizations into agreeing that the workers were not employees in exchange for consultation rights on rule changes and other issues like receiving tips.  More concerted efforts to create a mini-National Labor Relations Board representation mechanism were launched at the municipal level in Seattle, but the organizing effort is currently mired in litigation over preemption by the National Labor Relations Act and the question of employee status.

Local efforts reflect the way companies keep changing their practices, as Marielle Benchehboune, coordinator of ACORN’s affiliate, ReAct, noted recently in Forbes. “What will make the difference,” she suggested, is workers organizing “on the transnational scale.” Perhaps her analysis is correct.  Perhaps a rare global organizing plan could create enough pressure and leverage among these competing companies that could weld a workers’ movement together from the disparate pieces of independent worker mobilizations that are cropping up around the world.

Given the challenges, how much should we invest in organizing gig workers? Labor economists in the US caution that despite all of the hype from Silicon Valley and even some labor officials about the emerging gig economy, it involves a very small percentage of the workforce.  Others, like Louis Heyman in the recent book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream became Temporary, argue that gig workers are just the pimple on the elephant’s ass of contingent and temporary labor that has been hollowing out the American workforce for decades, just as consultants have chipped away at management jobs as well.

I heard something similar fifteen years ago, when I asked a leader of the Indian National Trade Union Congress if they were doing anything to organize call center workers in India. He answered that they estimated that there were 30,000 such workers, but there were 450 million workers in India at the time and hardly 9% were organized.  He then shrugged. That’s all he said, but we got the message.  There’s much to be done in organizing the unorganized, and resources and capacity are always restrained, whether in India or Europe or North America.

Is that a reason for not finding ways to organize workers who are attempting on their own to find justice on their jobs? Or is it just another rationale for doing little or nothing?  The one thing that seems clear is that if unions are going to be relevant to the modern workforce and the irregular and precarious forms of work that are being created by technology married to avarice, we must debate and address these challenges. It may be difficult, but unions and organizers need to devise practicable strategies that allow workers to organize, win, and build enough power to force companies to adapt and change.

I wish we had the answer now, because the workers seem ready, but one way or another, we need to figure this out quickly!

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

Columbus Free Press: Tips and Tools #7: Building an Organization? It’s Hard to Run an All-Volunteer Army!

By Wade Rathke in Columbus Free Press on March 6th, 2019

A mass organization can’t make it without members and volunteers doing a tremendous amount of work. There is no way that any level of dues collection or number of self-sufficiency schemes can ever substitute for all of the work needed to build large organizations. At the same, it’s almost impossible to be sustainable without some staff.

Recently, I was in Ireland for the first-time visiting tenant support and action groups in Dublin, Limerick, and Galway. Their work over the years had been amazing. The support groups had done great work in eviction defense. At different times the groups had been able to come together, particularly in Dublin, to rally thousands against government cutbacks or mass evictions in private and social housing with all the work done by volunteers and activists.

The problem was that it wasn’t sustainable. The mobilizations would ebb and flow, but would not yield permanent organization even though the issues and campaigns were often ongoing and interminable. Eventually, the numbers would fade and rather than building real power to protect and advance constituency interests, it would mean starting over and rebuilding to meet each new crisis, and often against even worse odds. Public bureaucracies can often dig in and outlast our surges, even when our cause is just. Corporate power, hedge funds, big banks and private equity, are currently entrenched and in ascension. It’s hard to beat the pros with a pickup squad.

So, we all agree that we need organization, but sometimes it takes some struggle for some organizations to understand that they also need staff, meaning real people whose final responsibility it is to help with the organizing, research, communication, and other tasks that smooth and sustain long term organization. The question asked over and over in Ireland and country after country, city after city, community after community, is simple: how do we get there?

Someone always plays the role of an organizer, but at the point in the organization’s life that you come to inescapable conclusion that you will have to build the capacity to sustain the work and create enough power to win, it takes leadership to get there. In the United Kingdom we are finding that we are overwhelmed with invitations to build new ACORN community organizations and ACORN Tenant Unions. We know they want – and need – staff, but we don’t have the resources.

We advise them to bring together ten or twenty people to begin the organizing. We send them a “starter” packet and support them on email, phone, and with occasional visits. Critically, as a dues-and-donation based organization, we give them a benchmark to reach. When they reach one-hundred dues paying members, we make them a formal local chapter or branch. As they reach one-hundred fifty, we help them hire an organizer part or fulltime depending on community support and commitments.

Sure, there are other ways to do this. You might get lucky and get a small grant to short cut the process, but, frankly, that’s a crapshoot, and many don’t score. Furthermore, grants come and mainly go, and then you are back to square one again. You might find an angel somewhere, but heaven knows that might even be harder. By creating a mechanism of support within the very community that is being organized whether neighborhood, workplace, or housing high rise, slowly but steadily the organization can get to a place that would be straightforward to sustain.

Not every emerging group will make it. Some will fall by the wayside finding the climb too steep and their step unsteady. But the ones that make it, have a chance of being able to not only fight successfully in the ongoing struggles, but also build the confidence and experience to scale up from that point forward. It’s not magic, but it is work, and it’s worth it.

Want to try? Call me maybe.